Iran’s Shia militias are standing by for US sanctions to be eased

Jewish Chronicle, 15/1/21

I met Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside the oil town of Baiji, in Sunni central Iraq, five years before he was killed by an American drone. The war against ISIS was at its height, and the Iranian military mastermind Qasem Soleimani – who met his end alongside Muhandis in January 2020 – had taken command of Iraqi Shia militias. There were already rumors about their murderous behavior toward Sunni civilians. That day, Muhandis was in good humor, calm and amused by the western journalists seeking an audience, and the high-ranking Iraqi Army officers who hung on his every word.   

Five years on, both Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Major General Qassem Soleimani lie in their graves.  The militia strength which they built together in Iraq, however, remains very much alive. It is part of a wider archipelago of client political-military organisations, seeded by Iran across the Middle East, from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean Coast. The creation of this network was Soleimani’s life’s work.  Al-Muhandis was his friend, protégé, and key lieutenant in Iraq.   

The demise of the two men, combined with the US policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Tehran, has brought the Iranian militia structure in the Middle East to its knees. But whether the incoming US Administration will maintain that pressure is an open question, and one that keeps leaders up at night across the region. 

Iran’s proxy network was one of the main beneficiaries of the collapse of governance across a large swathe of the Arab world that began with the Arab Spring.  In Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the crumbling of the state allowed Soleimani to plant his client groups, building covert Iranian strength.   

In all of these countries, the goal was the same. Tehran did not seek to capture official state power. Rather, it wanted to transform the state into a weakened host body, allowing its parasitic militia to act with impunity. The long list of its armed groups shows the scale of the threat: the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen, Kata’ib Hezbollah – Muhandis’ organisation – in Iraq, Lebanese Hizballah, the Afghan Fatemiyun group and the Pakistani Zeinabiyun – not to mention the myriad of militia in Syria.  

Over the last two years, however, their advance has largely been halted, if not reversed. Largely, this has been achieved by the United States, and is one of Donald Trump’s most notable foreign policy legacies. 

There is no doubt that the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis left the militia structure decapitated. Assassination is an uncertain weapon, sometimes resulting in the emergence of a leader more formidable than the one removed. Thankfully, this has not been the case here. Esmail Ghaani, who replaced Soleimani at the head of the Qods Force, and Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, now heading the pro-Iran militia structure in Iraq, are proving far less capable than the men who preceded them. The militia structure worked primarily on informal relationships, created by Soleimani over a period of years. These cannot simply be handed over to a replacement. 

Alongside the drone strike that killed them came the US policy known as ‘maximum pressure’. The sanctions imposed on the Iranian oil, financial and banking sectors in 2018 starved the Iranian economy of funds. This meant the closing of the tap for the militias. Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, suffered a 40 per cent reduction funding in 2020. Similarly, the four top pro-Iran militias in Iraq saw their income fall from £3-4 million per month to £1-2 million.  

The lack of leadership and money is having a dramatic affect. In Syria, where there is no large Shia population, Iran depends on financial handouts to fill the ranks. These are no longer available. In Iraq, where the militias have their own sources of income, discipline and unity have begun to break down. On December 20, for example,rockets were fired at the US Embassy in Baghdad.  While a small pro-Iran militia claimed responsibility, the attack was criticised by two of the larger militias, Asab Ahl al Haq and Ktaeb Hizballah. These organizations and others like them control oil fields, checkpoints, real estate and land. Their independent economic resources mean that they are evidently not prepared to mutely follow orders from fresh commanders for whom they have little respect.    

There is now a real possibility that the militias could be poised for a return. President-elect Joe Biden has made clear his desire to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear accords with Iran. As a prerequisite, Tehran is insisting on the lifting of all sanctions. In an attempt to focus American minds, it has threatened to expel international nuclear inspectors from the country on 21 February, unless the money starts to flow again.   

An early capitulation by the Biden Administration would give away any leverage that the US currently holds, and reduce any chances of achieving the improved deal the president-elect has said that he wants. Lifting sanctions would revitalize the cashflow to the militias, threatening to revive their forward motion. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Major General Qasem Soleimani are gone. Muhandis will stay in Najaf, where they buried him, until further notice, and Soleimani will not be leaving the Kerman Martyrs Cemetery in southeast Iran any time soon. But the structures these men created have not been wrecked. They are only low on fuel. It is up to Biden whether they stay that way. 

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is a the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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